Mohammed Abdel-Haq is Chairman of the Centre for Opposition Studies at the University of Bolton.
In the wake of the extraordinary General Election result, there is no shortage of blame being thrown around in Conservative circles for the shock loss of their majority, with MPs and activists busily pronouncing on what went wrong with the campaign and what it means for the future. Some of the interpretations are understandable, but we should be careful about drawing firm lessons without solid evidence.
Firstly, on the EU, there are wildly varying interpretations. Some have confidently asserted that over 80 per cent of people voted for parties committed to a ‘hard Brexit’, giving a firm mandate for such an approach. Meanwhile others have said the reluctance of voters emphatically to endorse Theresa May’s government should lead to a rethink of that approach. It is not possible for both to be correct.
Secondly, many Labour supporters argue that Jeremy Corbyn’s better-than-expected performance represents a firm rebuke to Conservative austerity and a new willingness on the part of the electorate – particularly disenchanted younger voters – to entertain socialist solutions and give a sympathetic hearing to the Labour leadership. Conservatives meanwhile point out that Corbyn failed by a considerable margin to win the election, and that voters clearly preferred to stick with the current government.
Finally, Conservatives are split on what went wrong with the campaign and why the manifesto failed to inspire more support. Those on the right argue the positive case for free-market capitalism and sound finances should have been made clearer, whilst moderate Conservatives argue that the party failed to get its bold progressive ideas across effectively, and must now respond by softening its position on austerity and other issues.
As ever, the truth must lie somewhere between these conflicting interpretations. What is clear, however, is that Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party attracted substantially more support than commentators, academics and pollsters thought likely or even possible. This could be because, as the Conservatives’ campaign consultant Lynton Crosby has now suggested, voters judged them highly unlikely to win, and lent them a protest vote. But clearly many also voted positively for Corbyn’s party.
Much attention has been given to the issue of younger voters, with many accepting as a fact that a surge in student voters boosted Corbyn’s performance. There is little hard evidence to support this conclusion, however. What some of the early polling analysis actually seems to show is that Labour did very well amongst voters right up to the age of 45, whilst the Conservatives led amongst older voters. A higher turnout in the first group and a dip in the latter is a likely explanation for the shock result.
Whilst it may not have been the students alone who swung it, it would be wrong to dismiss the significance of their enthusiasm for Corbyn. These are forward-looking, well-educated people who are by definition career-minded, inquiring, and cosmopolitan in outlook. Those are characteristics shared by a much wider demographic, and we should ask what it is they found so appealing in the Labour leader’s message.
A large part of it could simply be the attraction of insurgency. Anti-establishment movements are always appealing to those who feel that things are not right with the world, and who want to register their disquiet with those in power. That basic urge helps explain the rise of Donald Trump in the US, and the success of the Leave campaign here. Both those examples, however, were revolts by predominantly older voters to the right. Corbyn’s revolution (however modest) was amongst younger age groups, to the left. What drove them?
Much further analysis will be required to answer that question properly, but in the meantime I can offer an initial suggestion of my own. Put simply, Jeremy Corbyn offered a positive vision of a better, fairer future that resonated with many people. Conservative attacks on ‘outdated socialism’ meant little to those for whom the 1970s are ancient history, whilst many of the policies Labour put forward were in any case seen as reasonable rather than extreme.
Politics is often a matter of tone as much as substance, and at this election, Jeremy Corbyn projected himself as offering a fair, reasonable and compassionate alternative to an extreme, uncaring and out-of-touch government. Far from being put off by his angry denunciations of the status quo, many saw it as a sign of a conviction politician who cared passionately about the things and people they cared about. In seeking to counter the Corbyn insurgency, Conservatives need to learn that lesson, and adopt a more compassionate approach in their tone and actions.